Nashville’s first local Internet service provider would have been 20 years old this month. Telalink was born back when Google was just gibberish, Amazon was a river and Facebook was actually a book.
The World Wide Web would have reached Nashville somehow, some way. But it arrived – appropriately – by way of a group of self-described “geeks in a basement.”
“This is where the Internet came into Nashville, right behind my desk,” says Thomas Conner, pointing to an 8-inch hole that still remains in the side of a West End midrise.
Conner and fellow Vanderbilt alums Bill Butler and Tim Moses paid $800 a month to run a data line all the way from North Carolina. They maxed out their credit cards to buy the necessary routers – all for a connection that couldn’t compare to the Internet speeds on today’s cell phones.
“We could turn around, set up a bunch of modems for people to call in, and they would go through that little line out to the rest of the world,” says Tim Moses.
What was their college apartment began filling up with racks of screeching modems which would have a tendency to overheat on warm afternoons.
Local businesses signed up to get electronic mail. Graphic designers were looking for a better way to send files to the printer. Musicians experimented with promotional pages. And – ahead of his time – an artist named Tall Paul put his music on the web for download.
He may have been the first Nashville act to have an album available online, Moses says.
“Back then, it would have taken days to download all the music,” Moses says. “But it was there. We made an entire digital album available on the Internet.”
Telalink was a collection of goofballs, making service calls on their roller blades. They kept an office cat. Their company shirts made them look like a bowling team. Their favorite bar tender was brought on to run the customer service department.
“I said, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing,'” Scott Sears recalls. The computer science grad was told by the founders not to worry, “we don’t either.”
Sears now owns Nashville’s high-end restaurant and bar Flyte World Dining and Wine, thanks in large part to what proved to be Telalink’s demise. The founders cashed out in 1999 at just the right time.
They sold the 20-person company – still operating out of a college apartment – for $6.5 million. Several used the earnings to start new web ventures in Nashville. Conner and Moses still run website host Sitemason, which is housed in the old Telalink office. Butler went on to start another Internet service provider and is now the chief technology officer of PatientFocus, a healthcare billing company.
The business that acquired Telalink – PSINet – went belly up just a few years later in the dot com bust.
“So I invite you to raise your glasses,” Conner says, standing on a chair at the Telalink 20-year reunion this month. “And offer a toast to Feisty.”
That was the office cat – like Telalink, now deceased. But its ashes made an appearance at the party.
And in a show of just how far Internet connections have come since 1993, several of the far-flung employees and interns made appearances by way of video calls.
“Hi, Michelle,” Moses says, responding to an iPad being passed among the alums. “Glad you could make it.”